The South African National Editors' Forum says it was deeply concerned and disgusted by the labelling of certain prominent South African journalists and editors as "Stratcom" agents in front-page articles published by all major Independent Media-owned newspapers on Friday.
"This is a sad day for South African journalism. The Independent Media group has been a critical part of the media landscape for decades. Some of the finest journalism to come out of this country has been produced by journalists working on titles like The Star, Cape Times and The Mercury," Sanef said in a statement on Friday.
Sanef said it believed the attack on journalists playing their watchdog role in investigating private sector irregularities "is not only defamatory, but disgusting".
On Friday, all Independent Media group newspapers carried front page stories titled Exposed: Stratcom version 2018. The article alleges that the company has evidence that senior executives of a major competitor had plotted to scupper the listing of Sagarmatha Technologies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
The "evidence" allegedly points to a dirty tricks campaign, similar to those employed by Stratcom during apartheid to demonise the late struggle veteran Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
The story claims that, in this instance, the campaign was aimed at Independent Media and its executive chairperson, Iqbal Survé.
The report comes shortly after allegations were made that a number of journalists had been employed by the apartheid government as spies.
According to an eNCA report, in a video clip, which was recently published on HuffPost SA, Madikizela-Mandela said 40 journalists were helping Stratcom with their smear campaign against her.
Two of the names mentioned were Professor Anton Harber and the SABC's Thandeka Gqubule.
Sanef said this was the second time, in as many weeks, that prominent journalists had been called "Stratcom" agents, without any proof being provided by those making the accusations.
The issue at hand this time was the unsuccessful listing of Sagarmatha Technologies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange by the owners of Independent Media.
"The faces and names of South African journalists who have reported critically on this transaction are published alongside those of Vic McPherson and other masterminds of the apartheid state’s Stratcom operation whose main aim was to sow division and spread lies in the anti-apartheid movement.
"This led to the death of many activists and the manipulation of facts to suit the agenda of the oppressor," the statement reads.
"The orchestrated way in which all the group’s newspapers published this defamatory piece today shows something else at play, which purpose cannot be to serve the public.
"Sanef will urgently engage our members at Independent Media to convey our deep concern about this unfair episode and gain a better understanding of the issues at play that are seemingly not serving journalism."
Sanef added that it would be writing to the Public Investment Corporation board, a main shareholder in Independent Media (to the tune of R1bn in equity stakes, loans and converted debt), to urgently express the organisation's deep concerns about the lapse of journalistic principles and standards at this important voice in the media landscape.
"The PIC invests money on behalf of government employees in projects to grow and strengthen democracy. We believe that labelling bona fide journalists 'Stratcom' agents for investigating a private sector transaction fundamentally undermines this purpose."
Sanef said it stood in solidarity with editors and journalists within the Independent Group who valued editorial independence but were seemingly powerless to stop these stories.